At the NBAA show this fall, multimillion dollar business jets and working aircraft were the focus. No surprise. After all, the organization is the National Business Aviation Association. While I’ve attended a few times (and am always stunned by the size of the exhibit hall and the opulence of the displays), I was caught off guard when I heard that some reporters asked Cessna’s President and CEO Scott Ernest about the Skycatcher.
One thing that did not surprise me was Ernest’s comment: “No future.”
Yes, it was that tersely worded and when pushed, he merely repeated the statement.
It makes one wonder about the several dozen Skycatchers already received from the Chinese subcontractor and in the USA. Most of these new airplanes, reportedly in various states of completion, remain unsold; it is said some do not yet have an engine installed, for example.
Why the storied company would let these new aircraft languish seems hard to explain. For more than a year, the company has made almost no effort to market them. Maybe they only represent “spare parts?” I don’t know and Cessna is tight-lipped about them.
Right or wrong, the market simply did not embrace Skycatcher. Even with the golden brand name of Cessna, this aircraft didn’t inspire the pilot community or very many flight schools.
The design was constrained in useful load — partly a decision to install the heavier Continental O-200 engine that Cessna mechanics know so well. Partly this was an effect of the steep price increase that Ernest implemented after replacing Jack Pelton as head of the company.
Regardless, from a onetime lofty 1,000 or so delivery positions sold, less than 300 were registered and about 200 are flying. Certainly, jets make lots more profit per unit, but nobody learns how to fly in a Citation.
The Wichita powerhouse appears willing to cede this market to others.
What does the rest of the LSA manufacturer base think of this? Mostly, nothing. I’ve asked several producers and nearly all see it as a non-event for their company. The bigger LSA players are doing fine, as are some with specialty aircraft that have a loyal following. They may be making fewer deliveries than when the economy was strong and the market brand new with pent-up demand. Yet when comparing similar $150,000 LSA, most fare better than Skycatcher and the market quickly came to realize this.
When Cessna first announced Skycatcher, many said this “validated” the LSA concept and it was widely viewed as a positive. While some LSA producers surely became nervous about competing again a multibillion-dollar enterprise like Cessna, in the end a quick and nimble company has advantages that a huge, sprawling enterprise lacks. The Bible story of David and Goliath springs to mind.
In the brave new world of ASTM industry consensus standards whereby manufacturers are able to rapidly change their airplanes to better suit the market, smaller and less regimented businesses can often respond better. Just ask Microsoft what they think of Google. Once the former corporation owned the world of PCs and Google didn’t even exist. In a dozen years Google passed the market capitalization of Microsoft. Back in 2001, no one would have believed that could happen.
For Cessna, Piper, and Cirrus — each of which briefly entered the LSA space — the LSA phenomenon may have proved too challenging and not financially worth the gamble. Certainly $75,000-$150,000 aircraft cannot throw off the profits of an $800,000 airplane or a $10 million business jet.
Brave New World
Into this melting pot we introduce the Part 23 rewrite project and the work of a new ASTM committee with the dull name “F44.” This group is working on industry consensus standards that should one day allow a Type Certified aircraft — something an LSA is not — to meet a more responsive set of rules than having to gain FAA approval the way it has always been done.
Will the legacy producers like Cessna follow this direction? Or, will the six LSA manufacturers who are planning four-seat designs come to dominate this entry end of aviation? Will Cessna continue its focus on jets, while Piper and Cirrus sell sophisticated aircraft like the Meridian and SR-22 Turbo? Does this mean the new upstarts will take over the lightest end of aircraft design and building? So many questions … we can only wait to see what tomorrow has in store. Cessna may not have all the right answers about the future.